By Amy SpoonerJuly 8, 2014
As legal director for the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas (HRI), Chris Mansour, '98, spends a lot of time working with—and on behalf of—young people. But her early attempts at engaging with kids, as a student attorney in Michigan Law's Child Advocacy Law Clinic, didn't go so well.
"It was challenging, to say the least," Mansour said. "I was the oldest of five children and had done a lot of babysitting, so I figured it would be easy. But I was too analytical, too focused on what had to be done. I couldn't relate." It took a tough sit-down with Clinical Professor of Law Suellyn Scarnecchia to teach Mansour how to interview children in a way that makes them comfortable and trusting. "It was a skill I hadn't realized I lacked, but now it's vital to my work."
The HRI's clients include victims of human rights abuses seeking asylum in the United States; immigrant victims of spousal or child abuse at the hands of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident; immigrant men, women, and children who are the victims of a violent crime; immigrant children who travel to the United States alone; or immigrant children who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by their parents. HRI is the only agency in Dallas that represents asylum seekers and immigrant children free of charge. Because of the huge influx of immigrants in the region, Mansour has plenty of opportunity to put her legal training and empathy to use. She provides direct legal services while also leading the nonprofit's legal and advocacy groups.
In her advocacy role, Mansour fights for systemic change in the areas of human rights and immigration law—from pounding the pavement in favor of national immigration reform to educating future voters. Shortly after Mansour came on board in 2008, HRI launched its human rights curriculum, focused on educating middle-school- and high-school-aged students.
"We had noticed that many of our interns had a rudimentary understanding of human rights issues and, in talking to teachers, realized that most don't have time to cover the topic," Mansour said. By bringing a client to the classrooms as part of HRI's presentation, she said the issues come to life. "The students are rapt. From there, they can start to understand what freedom of speech and freedom of religion mean. They can see how good we've got it in the United States, pay more attention to what's going on in the rest of the world, and develop a keener interest in social justice."
Her own desire to right the world's wrongs led Mansour to law school after a post-undergrad career in journalism. The sports reporter beat taught her "there are only so many ways you can write that one team beat another team," while subsequent gigs left her disillusioned. "I decided I didn't want to write about what other people are doing, I wanted to do something myself."
After law school, she went to Jones Day in Cleveland and then to Michael Best & Friedrich LLP in Madison, Wisconsin. Her private-practice career focused on commercial litigation, intellectual property disputes, and appeals—different from her work now, but an essential part of her progression. "I wanted the solid training that a firm can provide," Mansour said, "so that I could go anywhere feeling like I had been really challenged and made into a better lawyer."
When her husband's career brought Mansour to Dallas, HRI was attracted to her appellate background. Mansour eagerly jumped into the complexities of immigration and asylum law.
"I went from working with highly educated people, usually lawyers, to people with little or no U.S. education and significant language and cultural barriers," she said. "It's freeing to know that you're helping to change someone's life, and they're incredibly appreciative. While the immigration system can be frustrating, this is definitely where I'm supposed to be."
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